What’s a Classified Growth to do?
The contradictions in the U.S. Bordeaux market as a result of the economic crisis could hardly be more glaring than when viewed through the lens of these two dueling headlines:
The first, from Yahoo News, reports that the American market for Classified Growths is so disastrous that “Some vintners have taken the unprecedented step of buying back their own wine.” Among these are such celebrated names as Chateaux Gruaud Larose, Greysac and even — Sacre bleu! — “the iconic Petrus.” The chateaux resorted to this desperate act to protect their wines’ image, “which can be destroyed by heavy discounting” expected when supply far exceeds demand. (All these moves followed ripple-effect like after Diageo, through its U.S. importer Chateau & Estates, “began aggressively liquidating tens of millions of dollars’ worth of [Bordeaux] stock at 40 to 60 percent discounts.”)
I don’t know if ever before in the history of Bordeaux the chateaux have bought back their wines from distributors in order to protect prices. I have read Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s “The Wines of Bordeaux” and seen nothing there of the kind. Can you imagine if, here in the States, Harlan, Colgin, Araujo and Screaming Eagle had to re-purchase their own wines after they already were somewhere in the market? (Never mind that most of them never see the distributor chain.) It would be shocking.
But how to reconcile this sad reality with that second headline, which comes via a press release from the Chicago wine auction house, Hart Davis Hart?
“Global Market Explodes with Huge Prices for DRC, Lafite, Pétrus…”
Drilling down into the details, “Eager bidders participated from 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, as well as Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, Singapore, Switzerland, South Korea and the United Kingdom.”
These seemingly opposite truths are, in fact, completely compatible. The kind of person who pays $71,700 for 6 magnums of 1982 Pétrus is not feeling any pain. And, rest assured, there still are plenty of such multi-millionaires. They are the bankers, high tech magnates, international businessmen and inherited-wealth crowd who are largely immune to the vagaries of the economy. The people who are hurting — who have turned with a vengeance away from buying Classified Growth Bordeaux in this country — are the ordinary middle and upper-middle classes who, in normal times, thought nothing of buying some Gruaud Larose to stash while drinking their Sonoma Cabs and Paso Robles Zins. Heck, even I used to buy Gruaud in the 1980s.
So Bordeaux is in free fall, at least here in the U.S., and “The 2007 [vintage] is basically unsellable,” a French importer-distributor told Yahoo News.
The Bordelais have apparently decided to try to do something about their declining sales. This article describes how “Bordeaux [is] courting new drinkers online and in person” by such tactics as a consumer-friendly website, enjoybordeaux.com, and “Bordeaux ‘MatchMaking’ events – tastings where people with similar wine preferences meet each other and try new wines” [see bordeauxmatchmaking.com].
If that smacks of stooping to conquer — a bit unglamorous and Madison Avenue-y for prestigious Bordeaux — well, it is; but desperate times call for desperate means. Look at it this way: At least we haven’t heard of Lafite, Latour, etc. hiring Social Media Managers! (Paging Monsieur Hardy Wallace. Please report to the Médoc.)